Rubio says America will end up following China if leaders like him don't act

Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio Getty Images

Marco Rubio presented his vision for a "new nationalism" on Thursday, a wide-ranging appeal against unfettered free-market conservatism that he said will undermine future generations of Americans while benefiting China.

Relying solely on market forces to determine the course of the country will ultimately relegate America to second-fiddle status, Rubio said, as large multinational corporations ship jobs overseas to places where workers aren't afforded the protections the U.S. government provides in a never-ending search for maximum profits.

"We are weakened by an economic elitism that has replaced a commitment to the dignity of work with a cult-like faith in financial markets," Rubio said to a room full of conservatives at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference in Washington. "When right and wrong is based solely on profitability, then there is nothing immoral in shipping jobs overseas or surrendering key American technology and innovation to China."

Rubio's remarks on Thursday came hours after the Trump administration announced that Chinese telecom giant ZTE will pay a $1 billion fine and fund an in-house compliance team staffed by U.S. experts after the company was caught shipping communications equipment to North Korea and Iran, and lied to U.S. investigators about it.

In April, the Commerce Department announced a seven-year ban on ZTE buying American parts, an action that President Trump said would lead to "too many jobs in China lost."

He then instructed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to cut a deal, over the objections of Rubio and most lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Over the past few months, Rubio has sharply criticized the administration's approach to China, even as he continues to work closely with the White House on issues like Venezuela. But for Rubio, the Trump administration's decision to cut a deal with ZTE goes beyond a bad business decision.

China’s explosive rise was a shock to the global trading system. For decades, western economies like the U.S. have struggled with the growth of this economic powerhouse.

He says engaging with companies who help designated state sponsors of terrorism because it's good for their bottom line will hurt America and its workers in the long run.

"We need policies that view Americans as human beings who cannot flourish without the sense of accomplishment, pride and sufficiency that comes with a good-paying job," Rubio said, lauding efforts like expanding the child tax credit in last year's tax overhaul after some Republicans objected and pushing for paid family leave with Ivanka Trump. "Which is why we cannot allow China to continue to cheat and steal their way into a position of dominance in these industries, and need to spur American investment in the manufacturing of the future, and support American companies when they help American workers."

Rubio also included some red meat for the conservatives in attendance, blasting Hillary Clinton and mentioning that standing for the national anthem is important. But the speech provided a window into Rubio's legislative philosophy over the next five years before he faces voters again in 2022.

The substance of his speech — a call to conservatives that they should alter parts of an economic message that preaches economic elitism or else they will end up ceding control to Democrats who preach a message of cultural elitism, all while China gains more power at America's expense — was vastly different than the two other speakers at the conference on Thursday.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and House Speaker Paul Ryan chose to focus on various "victories" for conservatives since Trump took office in 2017. Rubio's approach wasn't embraced by everyone in attendance.

"I liked Ted Cruz. Rubio seemed like he wanted to sleep," one attendee said, mirroring the same challenges Rubio faced trying to motivate Republican primary voters around the country when he ran for president.

But Rubio isn't up for reelection until 2022, putting him in a political position where he can nudge Republican leaders and the president on certain issues, unlike Florida Gov. Rick Scott, an early Trump supporter who has hesitated to invoke the president while campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

“We need both policies and a culture that will value and support the family," Rubio said. "Many powerful people were infuriated when I demanded we expand the Child Tax Credit as part of tax reform. But I ask you what I asked myself then: How could the Republican Party find hundreds of billions of dollars to give to multinational corporations, many of which care little about our country, but not cut the taxes of hard-working families trying to make ends meet and provide for their children?"

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty